05 October 2017

Bringing the bodies home:
JJ Murphy and the ‘Pickled Earl’

The monument to Lady Eva Constance Aline Bourke (1858-1940), Countess of Dunraven, in Saint Nicholas’ Church, Adare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Saint Nicholas’ Church, Adare, Co Limerick, last week to preach at the Harvest Thanksgiving Service.

Throughout this beautiful church, there are many monuments to the Wyndham-Quin family of Adare Manor, Earls of Dunraven. One monument recalls, Lady Eva Constance Aline Bourke (1858-1940), who became the Countess of Dunraven when she married Windham Wyndam-Quin (1857-1952), the 5th Earl of Dunraven.

Lady Eva was born in the Chief Secretary’s Lodge in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, now the residence of the US ambassador. She was the elder daughter of Richard Southwell Bourke (1822-72), the 6th Earl of Mayo, a former Governor-General of Mayo, who became known as the ‘Pickled Earl’ due to the circumstances surrounding his state funeral.

A similar funeral story involves Jeremiah James Murphy (1795-1851), who died in Pisa. He was part of a prosperous and adventurous merchant family in Cork involved in the Murphy distillery in Cork. His family members included John Murphy (1772-1847), Bishop of Cork, the Biblical scholar, the late Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (1935-2013), whose obituary I wrote for The Irish Times, and the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor (1932-2017), former Archbishop of Westminster.

The death of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor last month [1 September 2017] reminded once again of the story of JJ Murphy’s funeral.

I told the story of both Victorian funerals last year in ‘Bringing the bodies home: JJ Murphy and the ‘Pickled Earl’,’ which was published as Chapter 40 in Death and the Irish: a miscellany, edited by Salvador Ryan (Dublin: Wordwell, 2016), pp 151-154.

Palmerstown House, the former home of the earl of Mayo. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016

Bringing the bodies home:
JJ Murphy and the ‘Pickled Earl’

Patrick Comerford

Air travel has reduced the stress when grieving Irish families have to arrange to bring home the bodies of loved ones who have died on foreign shores but want to be buried in their native soil.

It was not so easy in Victorian days, though, and families either had to accept someone was going to be buried overseas and or had to find innovative, sometimes even irreverent, ways to bring home the bodies for burial.

Jeremiah James Murphy (1795-1851), of Lota Park, Co Cork, came from a prosperous and adventurous merchant family in Cork who lived in Ringmahon House. His father, James Murphy, with two of his brothers, established the Murphy distillery in Cork, while his uncle, John Murphy (1772-1847), was Bishop of Cork.

Jeremiah’s nearest brother, John James Murphy (1796-1883), led an extraordinary life. As a teenager, John sailed the South China Seas and supposedly fought at the Battle of Trafalgar. In his 20s he went to Canada and become a frontiersman for the Hudson Bay Trading Company. While he was in Canada, John was elected chief of a tribe and became known as ‘The Black Eagle of the North’. He returned to Liverpool in the 1820s to go into the family business, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Rome in the late 1830s, then studied for the priesthood, and eventually became Archdeacon of Cork. When he died, he was buried in the Murphy family plot in Carrigrohane.

That spirit of adventure rubbed off on John’s elder brother, Jeremiah, who was in his 50s when he went on the grand tour of Italy. During that tour, he died in Pisa on 29 November 1851. But getting his body home to Ireland proved difficult for his family because the sailors at Naples feared taking the coffin would on board would bring them bad luck at sea. The Murphy family proved resourceful, however, and outwitted the Italian sailors by putting Jeremiah’s body in an upright piano which they then shipped back to Ireland. He was buried almost two months later, on 18 January 1852 in Carrigrohane, Co Cork – still in the upright piano. His widow Catherine (Bullen) lived on until 1872, and his sons set up James J. Murphy’s Brewery in Cork in 1854. The descendants of this branch of the Murphy family include Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and the Biblical scholar, the late Jerome Murphy-O’Connor.

Richard Southwell Bourke (1822-72), of Palmerstown House, Co Kildare, was the sixth earl of Mayo. He was murdered in India in 1872 and is buried in Johnstown Churchyard, near Naas, Co Kildare. He is known as the ‘Pickled Earl’, since his body was preserved in a vat of rum on the long journey back to Ireland following his assassination.

Bourke was born in Dublin in 1822 and educated at Eton and Trinity College Dublin. He was descended from the de Burgo family; his great-grandfather, Joseph Deane Bourke, the third earl of Mayo, was the Church of Ireland bishop of Ferns and Leighlin (1772-82) and archbishop of Tuam (1782-94); and his grandfather, Richard Bourke, was bishop of Waterford and Lismore (1813-32).

A Celtic cross marks the earl of Mayo’s grave in Johnstown, Naas, Co Kildare. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016

From 1849, Richard Bourke was known as Lord Naas, a courtesy title in his family. In County Kildare his tenants saw him as a good landlord, and during the famine he attended public meetings and supported the Dublin Central Relief Committee. After travelling in Russia, he entered politics and was elected Conservative MP for Kildare in 1847, and later sat as MP for Coleraine, Co. Derry.

He was three times chief secretary of Ireland (1852, 1858-9 and 1866-8), and in 1867 he succeeded his father as the sixth Earl of Mayo. Two years later, he became the Viceroy and Governor-General of India in 1869. Before leaving for India he gave instructions that should anything happen to him his body was to be brought back for burial in Johnstown.

In India, he was known for his reforming legislation. He consolidated the borders of India, reorganised finances so that a budgetary deficit was turned into a surplus, planned widespread irrigation, built roads and railways, undertook India’s first census, and founded Mayo College, since known as ‘India’s Eton’.

In 1869 he negotiated a close alliance with the Emir of Afghanistan, Shir Ali Khan, to offset Russia’s influence in the region. But while he was visiting a convict settlement at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, he was attacked by an Afghan convict, Sher Ali Afridi, who murdered him with a knife on 8 February 1872. His dying words were words of forgiveness.

Lord Mayo’s partially-embalmed body was shipped home to Ireland, but in order to delay decomposition, his body was placed in a rum-filled cask … and so he became known as ‘the Pickled Earl’. To add spice to the story, when the cask was opened the body was there but there was no rum. Had it leaked out? Had it evaporated? Had it been drained off by the crew?

After a state funeral in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Lord Mayo was buried on 26 April 1872 in Johnstown churchyard. He is commemorated by the large Celtic cross in Johnstown and the ‘Mayo Window’ at the east end of the North Aisle in St Patrick’s Cathedral. There is a statue to him too in the Cumbria fishing town of Cockermouth, where he was MP before he went to India.

His son, Dermot Bourke (1851-1927), seventh Earl of Mayo, became a member of the Senate of the Irish Free State. While he was a senator, Palmerstown House was burned by the IRA in 1923.

Apart from Mayo College, there are Mayo Halls in Allahabad and Bangalore, and a Mayo Hospital and a Mayo School of Arts in Lahore.

● Bringing the bodies home: JJ Murphy and the ‘Pickled Earl’ was first published as Chapter 40 in Death and the Irish: a miscellany (ed Salvador Ryan), Dublin: Wordwell, 2016, pp 151-154.

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